For decades, they knew and did nothing. They did nothing and watched as cancer rates rose and lives were torn apart. Since the 1970s, a facility of the chemical giant DuPont polluted the groundwater of the Pompton Lakes area. The contamination seeped into both the soil and the lives of New Jerseyans as hundreds of households sat on top of an underground plume of toxic chemicals.
Documents dating back to 1979 show that the company understood the danger was present and knew the solvents would vaporize and intrude into the homes standing on the ground above. Yet, they refused to act, obscured the evidence of the issue and then made light of the extent of the toxicity.
Residents would not be informed of the vaporization until 2008. By this time, lymphoma and kidney cancers rates already escalated to startling levels in the area. The pursuit of justice under former Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.) was detrimentally lackluster.
DuPont had a gross profit of $10 billion in 2016. While the company has spent millions addressing some aspects of the polluted legacy of its existence in New Jersey, the contamination remains unaddressed beneath more than 400 homes. Now, DuPont is one of four companies that New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal has filed lawsuits against for its poisoning of the Garden State.
One of the other lawsuits attempts to hold a different facility — operated by DuPont and 3M in Parlin and located near schools and parks — that has generated and released waste with chemicals linked to “birth defects, cancer, liver malfunction, thyroid disease and reduced immune responses in children” accountable.
The Natural Resource Damages lawsuits act as a warning to the polluters that accept a trade-off between advancing their profits and damaging public welfare. Accountability ought not be scoffed at by industries that slow-walk the clean-up process until the incident is forgotten.
“We’re sending a strong message,” Grewal said, “that no matter how long you’ve been getting away with contaminating our state’s natural resources, we are going to hold you accountable in court.”
Gov. Phil Murphy’s (D-N.J.) administration has upended the past practice of allowing environmental injustice to go unchecked. Yesterday, April 2, Murphy signed an executive order rolling back some of the damages of Christie’s term by rescinding his order that obstructed state government from enacting any regulation that was stronger than a comparable federal regulation.
But New Jersey is unique in its density of superfund sites and history of pollution, demanding a higher degree of protective government actions be enforced. “New Jersey needs stronger protections than federal law given our pollution legacy and population density,” said Amy Goldsmith, state director of Clean Action New Jersey.
Though it can be argued the executive order should have been signed earlier in the administration, the measure still comes at a fundamentally crucial time as the federal context of climate change policy remains mired by denial, gridlock and the strong influences of serial polluters and the fossil fuel industry.
While President Donald J. Trump and his Environmental Protection Agency continues to deregulate protections, federal lawmakers have been sparring over environmental legislation, leaving local and state governments the responsibility and duty to stand their ground against polluters and forge ahead on climate change policies.
The city of Santa Fe, New Mexico represents how local government must respond to the dire realities of climate change. The state already suffers water shortages, a problem the 2018 National Climate Assessment (NCA) warns will only worsen in the Southwest. This past November, Santa Fe adopted a sustainability plan, leading the city toward being carbon neutral by 2040. Similarly, at least “19 states are considering or have already set 100 percent clean or renewable electricity targets.”
The state government of New Jersey has taken the mantle of environmental justice and responsibility, accepting that the point of indifference has long passed as we now stand in the era of consequence and action. Grassroots movements and citizen lobbying must be the driving forces that ensure America is not led by a government beholden to environmentally destructive corporate interests, but rather this nation must be governed both by the will of the people and for the protection of the public’s welfare.
The Daily Targum's editorials represent the views of the majority of the 151st editorial board. Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.